REGIONAL DIFFERENCES IN CHINA
Regionalism is a strong force in China. Sheila Melvin wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "Cities and provinces sniff disdainfully at one another and implement policies to guard their resources from their neighbors. Every coastal city has to have its own deep water port and every province its own airlines."
R.N. Anil wrote in the China Daily: "The Chinese are a people with diverse physical traits, dialects and traditions. They are multicultural, multireligious, and a multiethnic society, having as many a 55 ethnic groups as diverse and interesting as the geography and the history of the country they inhabit. Several of them are descendant of Arabs who came here via the Silk Road in early centuries."
The poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet? “ goes:
“Have they run out of provinces yet
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret
Long ago, there was just Cantonese
(Long ago, we were easy to please)
But then food from Sichuan came our way
Making Cantonese strictly passé
Sichuanese was the song that we sung
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue
[Source: Calvin Trillin The New Yorker, April 4, 2016].
Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao
Came along with its own style of chow
So we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fujian
Then respect was a fraction of meagre
For those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur
And then Xi’an from Shaanxi gained fame
Plus some others — too many to name.
“Now, as each brand-new province appears
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess
Simple days of chow mein but no stress
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met
Is there one tucked away near Tibet
Have they run out of provinces yet? .
Websites and Sources: Book: Understanding the Chinese Personality mellenpress.com ; Understanding Chinese Business Culture legacee.com ; Status of Chinese People Blog chinaview.wordpress.com ; Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project www.pnas.org ; Opinions on Asian Fetish colorq.org ; Essay on Humor, China and Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; . Book: One of the most enlightening books about China is “Chinese Lives” by Sang Ye and Zhang Xinxin, a series of interviews with ordinary Chinese talking very candidly about what matter to them.
Regional Stereotypes in Verse
Chinese-American Kaiser Kuo was member of the legendary Chinese rock group Tang Dynasty and is presently communications director of Baidu.com. He is a frequent contributor to Quora (a sort of social Question and Answer site). In response to the Quora question of the stereotypes of different provinces of China he posted a poem he had previously composed. It goes: “In Dongbei, whence the Manchus came, the men do like their liquor. While effusive with their friendship, with their enmity they’re quicker Though they’re honest and straightforward, at the slightest provocation They’ll show why they’ve been slandered as the Klingons of this nation. [Source: Quora, November 4, 2014, quora.com, posted MCLC by Mat Bettinson]
The leggy Dongbei ladies for their beauty are renowned,
(I attest that in my travels, few more fetching have I found.)
But they suffer from one drawback, and it’s very sad to tell —
When they open up their mouths to speak, they break that magic spell.
The stalwart Shandong people grow as hearty as their scallions
On their noodle-heavy diet they’ve been bred as strong as stallions.
They’re known for dogged loyalty; they’re known as trusty folks,
But a bit slow on the uptake — thus, the butt of many jokes.
In Hunan and in Hubei in the country’s center-south
They say the people there can really run it at the mouth
In Hubei in particular, the saying is often heard
That a single Hubei codger can drown out a nine-head bird.
The Hunanese, in temperament, are piquant as their dishes,
Like duo jiao yu tou — capsicum with slow-braised heads of fishes.
Add to this mix the province’s infernal summer heat,
And you see why Hunan’s Xiang Jun had the Taiping rebels beat.
The teahouses of Chengdu represent the Sichuan Way:
The women toil in earnest while the men drink tea and play.
The Chuan hou plays at mahjong as the Chuan mei cleans and mends,
And like the Sichuan peppers do, she burns it at both ends.
The Pearl River Delta in the southlands of Guangzhou
Is home to China’s most industrious people, as you know:
They’re scrappy and they’re gritty and they’re free of all pretension,
And they’ll make a meal of any living beast you’d care to mention.
They say that Henan people are a sly and cunning lot.
But my ancestors are from there — proving some, at least, are not.
My co-provincials countrywide are blamed for every ill,
While provinces that suck as bad get let off easy still.
Shanghai Pudong skylinePeople from northern and southern China are physically and genetically different from one another. Head shape, body size and susceptibility to disease vary greatly between the north and south.
The Shanghainese are philistines, and this they’ll gladly own:
Commercial instincts permeate them to the very bone.
Their pride in Shanghai’s petit bourgeois ethos is immense
But what they lack in culture, they make up in common sense.
As you might well have expected, I have saved the best for last,
For my love for Beijing’s people is immovably steadfast.
From their gargling r-drenched accent to their dry sardonic wit,
The denizens of Jing Town are the dope, the bomb, the shit.
Beijingers love to gab, and though they’re lazy and they’re slow,
There’s nothing about politics that they aren’t apt to know.
They may complain a lot about the traffic and the air
But scratch beneath the cynicism and you’ll find they care.
So be grateful that you live here, and be clear on what it means.
Be grateful you don’t live among Klingons, or philistines.
Be grateful for the legacy of Yuan and Ming and Qing —
And most of all be grateful for the people of Beijing.”
Northern Chinese Versus Southern Chinese
People from Beijing and northern China are often heavier and taller and have broader shoulders, lighter skin, smaller eyes and more pointed noses than Southerners. They favor noodles over rice, have the blood of horsemen from Manchuria and Mongolia, and are regarded as "imperious, quarrelsome, rather aloof, political, proud, and less ostentatious and flashy with their money than Southerners.” Beijingers often saw goodbye to one another with an expression that is translated as "Take it slow."
People from Shanghai, Canton and southern China are generally smaller, thinner, browner, and have rounder eyes and more rounded noses than Northerners. They favor rice over noodles, look more like Vietnamese, Filipinos and Southeast Asians and are regarded as "talkative, friendly, complacent, sloppy, commercial-minded and materialistic."
The dividing line between Northerners and Southerners is the Yangtze River. In the 19th century one man from northern China wrote: "The Cantonese...are a course set of people...Before the times of Han and Tang, this country was quite wild and wasted, and these people have sprung forth unconnected, unsettled vagabonds that wandered here from the north."
Views on Chinese Regionalism in the 19th Century
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““The instinctive dislike of the Chinese toward strangers is exhibited in their behaviour to natives of other provinces who settle in large numbers in great commercial centres. In this case it is not poverty which makes the immigrant objectionable, for the traders from distant provinces are frequently men of great wealth, and they always establish powerful guilds of their own. Neither is rivalry the source of the dislike, for the interchange of products which is thus carried on is well recognized as a great benefit to both parties. The root of the matter is that the strangers are strangers. They are not like "us," and therefore, with an impartiality worthy of an ancient Greek, each party calls the other " barbarian." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]
Beijing traffic “The people of Canton are recognized by those of the northern provinces to be distinctly superior to themselves in many particulars, such as mechanical skill and trading capacity. Yet natives of these provinces always call the Cantonese " southern barbarians." the men of the north who go to the south are in like manner stigmatized as " northern Tartars," which means barbarians. The “Shanxi men are the Jews of China, and the most capable bankers in the Empire, being in fact indispensable; but they are everywhere ridiculed, and are designated by many opprobrious names. In several of the northern provinces, a foreigner dressed in Chinese costume and travelling with the writer was repeatedly taken for a "Cantonese." A friend of the writer, whose home was in Canton, took her servants to Shantou on a visit. A servant belonging to the latter port came to his mistress, remarking that there was a man outside who looked something like a Chinese, and who wore Chinese dress, even to the queue, but he " could not talk a word of ' Chinese! " Yet Shantou and Canton are situated in the same province. The dislike and contempt felt by the Chinese for outsiders of their own race is conspicuously manifested in the southern provinces in the treatment of the Hakkas — whose very name indicates that they are " stranger-families." The mutual animosities of these immigrants and of the natives of the south played an important part in the history of the great T'aiping rebellion, the leader of which was considered to be a Hakka. The Hakkas seem to have come from the north at a remote time, and all certain trace of their origin is lost. " These fellows," say the Cantonese,' " do not know who their own ancestors were! "
“ One of the Chinese newspapers published at Canton has printed a complaint of the manner in which the Cantonese dealers, who visit the adjacent province of Fujian to buy tea, are treated while there. Cantonese who go on such errands, it says, "are treated as foreigners, and have to pay very high prices, not only for tea, but for everything else they want."
Fujians and Cantonese
Cantonese are regarded as very materialistic One Chinese man told The New Yorker, “All people think is, “I just what to get rich.” The richer you get, the more respect you’ll get. And the first people to get rich n the 1990s, were the Cantonese. Then people in other provinces started to copy the Cantonese life style, part of which is to eat a lot of seafood to show how much money you have.”
The people from Fujian are regarded as hard working and are famous for their entrepreneurial and counterfeiting skills. Many of the Chinese in Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the United States are decedents of people that emigrated from Fujian Province.
Fujians have traditionally been among the most ambitious go-getters from China. Many of the rich Chinese that made their fortune in the Hong Kong, United States and Southeast Asia have been Fujians. Enterprising Fujians are still breaking new ground, in Africa and other places. One Fujian native, Yang Jie, arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi in the mid 1990s. By the mid 2000s he owned and operated the largest ice cream company in Malawi.
Sichuanese are regarded as tough, lively, passionate, earthy and warm and are famous for their ability to "eat bitter." They have prospered outside of Sichuan but are not well liked. Sichuanese women are regarded as the most beautiful in China but also as temperamental, tempestuous and loose. Sichuan men are thought of as tricky and sly. People in Chengdu have a reputation for knowing how to relax and enjoy life.
The Sichuanese are known for being tougher, more able and hard working than other Chinese. One Sichianese survivor of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake told the Washington Post, “our mothers and fathers teach us from an early age. We all know how to eat bitters? A factory worker who lost everything in the quake said, “I could cry but what good would that do.”
In the early years if the Communist struggle, Sichuan soldiers were famous for enduring more suffering than soldiers from other regions. Explaining how the rugged countryside in Sichuan has helped the Sichuanese to eat bitter, a 76-year-old Sichuanese man said, “the mountains around here are not easy to live in. Everybody knows how to endure hardship.”
Hunan Province is where Mao was born, raised and spent his early adult life. It is known for plain-speaking people — of which in some respects Mao is a good example — and its food. Hunan cuisine is considered to be the best and spiciest in China. Similar to Sichuan cuisine but oilier and richer, Hunan dishes are often spiced with garlic and scallions, and have a hot and sour, or sweet and sour taste. Mao liked spicy Hunan cooking with course ingredients. His favorite dishes reportedly were pork fat and hing shao roud (braised pork). Xiang Chinese is a variety of Chinese spoken in Hunan. Huaguxi is a local form of Chinese opera that is very popular in Hunan province.
During a controversy over the building of a church that was taller than a Mao statue, Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times: On the streets of Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, residents seem to know or care little about the clash of Christianity and Communism in their midst. Asked about it, several people shrugged and declined to comment, or said they had not heard of it. If such grass-roots insouciance in Mao’s former home seems surprising, to one resident it makes perfect sense. “In Hunan, contradictions are not contradictions. They’re normal,” said Han Shaogong, the author of “A Dictionary of Maqiao,” a novel that explores the hilly region’s extraordinary linguistic diversity. “Life here is a bit like Chinese food. Throw lots of different things into a wok and stir them around.” In the village outside Changsha where he farms and writes, Mr. Han said, Christianity coexists happily with other traditions. “There are a couple of old ladies who believe in Jesus, but they believe in Buddha, too,” he said.[Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, May 7, 2017]
Reminders of Mao’s connection to the city are everywhere. His image, on wall-mounted illuminated boxes, decorates the new subway. Restaurants advertise his favorite dishes, including fatty red braised pork. Chiles, also loved by Mao, fire up the cuisine. “We really like chile,” Mr. Han said. “And we’re hot-tempered. It’s seen as a sign of strength.” Wu Aiyun was one of several women distributing free shampoo samples near Mao’s statue on Tangerine Island, where a riot of spring flowers bloomed. She barely paused when asked what Mao, who tried to crush capitalism, would think of them. “I think he’d love what we’re doing,” she said. “That was then. This is now.” Pointing at the stone ripples of Mao’s hair, she joked: “He was a good-looking guy! Not bad hair!”
““We say, ‘No man of Xiang isn’t a soldier,’” Mr. Han said, using a local name for Hunan. But the region is also known for its reverence for scholarship, he said. “In Guangdong, in the south, a local hero would be a businessman. In Hunan, traditionally it was a scholar.”Reflecting both those soldierly and scholarly values, Mao went on vigorous treks through the Hunan countryside. He believed that the Chinese must become stronger if they were to throw out the imperialists and missionaries.
Mr. Han said the people of Hunan “are tough but love, above all, a good time, “During the revolutionary years, they were really busy,” he said. “But now it’s all eat, drink, play. You could say there’s something degenerate about it. But isn’t it also kind of adorable?” Despite that suffering, to many locals Mao is a source of pride, his fame conferring status on the city and drawing tourism. “Mao was a son of Changsha. And emperor. The most successful man in China. So he’s a great asset to Hunan and Changsha,” Mr. Tan said. “Belief in the party has died, and everything today turns on advantage and disadvantage,’’ he said. “Under such conditions, people don’t care about anything, really. Mao is fine. Christianity is fine. It’s all kind of irrelevant.”
“Changsha was a hub of Christianity. The Yale Foreign Missionary Society, later the Yale-China Association, was founded here in 1901, a connection that endures. New Haven, home to Yale, is developing a sister city relationship with Changsha. “There once were many churches in Changsha, but many were knocked down,” said Tan Hecheng, a Hunan native and former journalist whose account of a massacre in the province during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, “The Killing Wind,” was recently released in English but cannot be published in mainland China.
Shandong Province is China’s second most populous province with over 101 million people according to the 2020 Chinese census. The people there are known for being honest, simple and loyal friends. It is where Confucius was born, lived and died. Sophie Menabde posted on Quora.com in June 2021: My boyfriend is from Shandong and I fell in love with this province. I’ve met many people in China but no one quite like him. So, I would say, Shandong must be a very special place to home men like these. It’s definitely my favorite province in China, followed by Jiangsu, where I lived for a year. [Source: Quora.com]
Lonely Cantonese Sith Lord wrote in 2020: The stereotypical Shandongese is someone who is old-school chivalrous, honorable, but extremely stubborn, and not at all fashionable. Kinda like the “corn-fed hick” stereotype of rural Americans. It can be quite endearing actually. We could use more honest, honorable people in this world. The Shandongese are also known for their laconic wit and great sense of humour, which you can see in Chinese internet celebrities like the almighty film critic , who is a classical Shandong lad.
Another person posted: I visited a middle school in Shandong, China, and there are many young men and women who are 180–190 cm tall. Why does it seem like people in Shandong are taller than the rest of China? Why are Shandong Chinese girls so beautiful with their shining faces and tall figures? Is 177cm considered short for a 20 year old guy in Northeastern China? Why are most Chinese there taller than me?
Liang Xiao posted in 2017: Hello, I'm from Shandong. Chinese people know that Shandong people are tall. That's true. The average height of males in Shandong is 175.44. The average height of women in Shandong is 169.45. Compare the average height of Chinese people: 169.7 for men and 155.8 for women. Note that this is the average height of an adult. Here is the data for 18 year old high school students in 2012: Males 175.3, females 163.2.
Hehe Sun, who lived in Shandong Province, wrote in in 2019: Shandong people has been view commonly as excessively enthusiastic, welcome and forthright.But due to the awful advertisements and soap operas of Shandong TV, the image of Shandong people may be interpreted as rustic. Monty Wu posted in 2019: In general, the stereotype of Shandong people is the honesty and simplicity. Restaurants in Shandong are typically serving in large portions of food—they don’t cheat on quantity to make more money. But many restaurants in small cities also close early, so if you’re going out for dinner, do it before 7:30 if you’re going to a small town in Shandong.
Chara Chan, born and raised in Sichuan, wrote in in 2016: I’m gonna talk about the men there. Shandong guys are popular in my province where sissy local men and gays prevail in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. The tough guys in Shandong are closer to the image of a MAN compared with their counterparts in my province. I think the height is one factor, but the character is another major contributing factor. My mom’s boyfriend is originally from Shandong as well. They are the type of men who would fight violently for their beloved ones if necessary.
People from Wenzhou are famous throughout China for their business and money-making skills. Books about them include “The Jews of the East: The Commercial Stories of Fifty Wenshou Businessmen”; “You Don’t Understand the Wenzhou People”; and “The Feared Wenzhou People, the Collected Stories of How the Wenzhou People Make Money”.
Wenzhou people are often mocked by other Chinese for their flashy ways and strange dialect. They are admired and disliked for their entrepreneurship. Many of the wealthiest Wenzhouese are Christians.
With little arable land and mountains blocking them from the interior of the mainland, the people of Wenzhou have traditionally looked to the sea, trading and opportunities abroad to improve themselves. They promoted the idea that the government should support commercial enterprises during the Song Dynasty in the 12th century and developed a strong trading culture during the Ming period in the 17th century and managed to emerge as an economic powerhouse in recent years without the education levels of Beijing, the special treatment of Shenzhen and the foreign investment of Shanghai.
Wenzhou people have succeeded through hard work, starting out with small businesses and workshops and expanding them. Over time they have come to dominate certain low-tech industries. Zhong Pengrong, a prominent economist told the Los Angeles Times, “Wherever there are business opportunities there are Wenzhou people...Unlike many other people in China who become rich overnight almost all the Wenzhou people built up their wealth from nothing and amassed their fortune through years of hardship.”
Two million Wenzhouese live abroad. The are big in the restaurant business in France, Russia, Italy and Brazil and involved in outsourcing Chinese manufacturing work to Vietnam and North Korea. Wenzhou people can be found everywhere: shipping 10,000 VCRs a month and mining iron and gold in Mongolia; mining molybdenum in North Korea; buying cow leather in Tanzania; and trading shrimp and turbot in Iceland. One Wenzhou man in Inner Mongolia who has four brothers and sisters in Italy told the Los Angeles Times, “My parents told us, “Go out and explore. The farther you reach, the stronger you get.”
Wenzhou makes half the world’s cheap shoes, nearly all of its plastic leather, bra part and zippers, and numerous other essential parts to everyday items. Sales of Audis, BMWs and even Maseratis Porsches and Bentleys are brisk in Wenzhou as are the sales of vanity licence plates for outrageous prices. To really impress your friends you need to buy an executive jet or $50,000 Vertu delux mobile phone. Tens of thousands of bottles of Margaux and Chateaux Lafit have been give as gifts and mixed with green tea and sugar before being gulped down.
Wenzho is known for its "ruthless" merchants who wreck havoc with property markets everywhere." It s not surprising that housing prices in Wenzhou are among the highest in China. Buying property is a pastime with real estate investments sought not in new apartment building in Wenzhou but also residential blocks in Paris. Wenzhou has a new airport and an opera houses designed by the famous Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott.
Malls in Wenzhou are stacked with band name luxury goods. Furniture stores sell knocks off of items displayed in the Louvre. The new $128 million Shangri-La hotel was built mainly to host extravagant weddings for pampered children who in some cases have been educated at some of Britain’s most famous boarding schools.
In one survey Wenzhou millionaires were asked what they would do if they were forced to chose between their business and their family — 60 percent chose their business, 20 percent chose their family and 20 percent couldn’t decide. Wenzhou business people tend to be very superstitious, laying out their factories in accordance with feng shui and starting business on auspicious days.
Wenzhouese have made bids for fashion company Pierre Cardin and tried to buy Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and bring it to Wenzhou
Uyghurs come across as being rougher and tougher than Chinese. Peter Hessler wrote in the New Yorker: “Their body language was eloquent...they swaggered. They had a reputation for carrying knives.” They “had a hard gaze, and they carried themselves with an intensity that made the Chinese nervous.” Hessler once observed a group of drunk Uyghurs amuse themselves by burning holes in their forearms with cigarettes.
Uyghurs treat their women with respect and exhibit behaviors that seem more Westernized than Chinese. Hessler wrote: “They were great hand shakers — a rarity in China. If a woman came to Uyghur table, the men stood up.” However, many find that Uyghurs are worse than Chinese about waiting in line.
Uyghur men sit around and drink tea. It is not unusual for a old man to pull out a long-necked, stringed rawap and strike up a tune. Especially in rural areas men and women tend to socialize separately. A “mashrap” is a traditional all-male gathering where participants play music, recite poetry and socialize. Uyghur men have traditionally been kind of macho in a Middle Eastern way. Many carry knives. Connected eye brows is regarded as a mark of beauty among Uyghur women.
The appearance of individual Uyghur varies widely. Some are dark and Middle Eastern looking. Other look like Europeans. Some look so much like Europeans in fact they have played Europeans in Chinese-made movies.
Tibetans have been described as rough, proud, earthy, honest, solemn, and reserved. Tibet is an extremely harsh land where many people are consumed by a ruthless quest for survival. Even so Tibetans smile a lot; can be very religious and pious; and are generally very easy going. In his book An Account of Tibet, the 18th century Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia, described Tibetans as people with “good memories who are born wise, kind, polite, active, diligent and skillful.”
On the Tibetan people, Eric Valli, a photographer and filmmaker who has spent a lot of time in the Tibetan region of Nepal, said, "Faith, religion, belief, superstition...has enabled them not only to live in this very harsh place but to remain human...You cannot wear a mask there for long. You cannot fake it. You pretend less and lie less. If you're not open to your neighbor and able to count on him, you cannot survive. This makes relations much simpler and deeper. What I learned from the Dolpo people is courage, tolerance, dignity and perseverance."
One Tibetan saying goes: "When two paths appear before you choose the more difficult one. That's the one that will draw forth your best aspects." Many Tibetans say if they could do anything they wanted, they would choose to spend 10 years in a cave meditating. Tibetans have traditionally not been very ambitious. In many ways Buddhism teaches one to accept their lot in life and look for happiness in future lives. The 2008 riots showed that some Tibetans have a violent side.
Tibet has traditionally been ruled by an aristocratic class with strong ties to the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The aristocratic class still exerts a lot of influence. "A few people belonging to high-status families control everything," said Yangdon Tsekyi, 25, who works in a Dharmsala coffee shop, a comment echoed by many Sangay voters. "If you have the right family name, you can be successful here.” [Source:Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, March 15, 2012]
Chinese poet and blogger Tang Danhong wrote:“From the very beginning of my experience with Tibet, I fell in love with the Tibetan people, their culture, and their faith. Their unique hospitality, charm, good humor, and confident attitude moved me quite deeply. They convey a priceless character through their smiles and their eyes, and the way they serve their tea and toast their wine, the way they spin prayer wheels. It’s a special kind of character that makes one feel warm and think deeply. This special character of theirs is intimately related to their land and Mother Nature, to their language and wisdom, and to their faith and philosophy about the world. I cherish most their understanding of, and universal compassion for, the tough realities experienced by all forms of life. [Source: “Fire Between the Dark and the Cold” by Tang Danhong, Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, January 2013, China Digital Times, January 9, 2013. Tang Danhong is a poet and filmmaker from Chengdu, Sichuan. She currently lives in Israel. She blogs at Moments of Samsara]
Image Sources: 1) University of Washington; 2) Beifan.com 3) cgstock.com http://www.cgstock.com/china ; CNTO, Shanghai Expo, Perrechon
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2021